8 child marriage myths that need to go

Classmates say no to child marriage in Rajasthan, India, 2012 © Girls Not Brides

From the halls of the United Nations to communities around the world, much has been done to raise awareness of child marriage. But sometimes the myths about what drives child marriage persist. Here are eight common misconceptions about child marriage – and why they’re wrong.

1/“Child marriage only happens in Africa and Asia”

A Google search for “child marriage” will bring up photos of Indian brides or adolescent mothers from Africa. But child marriage is a global problem that cuts across countries, regions, cultures and religions. The countries with the highest numbers of child brides range from Niger to Indonesia to Brazil. The practice also happens in parts of North America and Europe.

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2/“Child marriage is a cultural practice. We have to respect culture”

In many communities, child marriage has been a tradition for decades, if not centuries. So much so that it can be seen as a core part of the culture. But not all cultural practices are positive. Child marriage deprives girls of education and economic opportunities, and puts their health and safety at risk. The solution is not to condemn all traditions, but to work with communities to change traditions from within. As Girls Not Brides champion Graça Machel always says:

“Traditions are made by people, they can be changed by people.”

3/“Child marriage only happens to girls.”

Child marriage is driven by gender inequality. But boys are married off too. According to UNICEF, 156 million men alive today were married before 18. Child marriage often pushes boys into the workforce and forces them to take on adult responsibilities before they are ready.

4/“Parents do not care for their daughters if they marry them off”

Child marriage is driven by factors that go beyond parents’ individual decisions. Parents might feel they have no choice given the circumstances, or think they’re doing the best for their daughters. Ignoring the root causes of child marriage, or attacking the value system of people who practice it, will only alienate girls and their parents. When parents see how much better off girls are in school and out of marriage we can create change.

5/“Child marriage always involves young girls and older men”

The media often focuses on stories of girls married at a very young age. While these stories happen, the vast majority of child marriages involve adolescent girls. Globally, the rates of marriage of under-15s have gradually declined. But the marriage rates of 16 to 17-year-old girls have stagnated or increased.

Behind this trend lie deeper problems: lack of educational and employment opportunities for girls past secondary school, as well as the social and family pressure to marry – especially if they already have a boyfriend. In Nepal, for instance, there has been an increase in “love marriages” where adolescent boys and girls decide to marry.

6/“Child marriage is a family matter. It does not concern us”

The consequences of child marriage do not just stay within the family. When 15 million girls are married before 18 every year, everyone is affected. Child marriage perpetuates cycles of poverty, inequality and oppression – from one generation to another. It is one of the most blatant manifestations of gender inequality worldwide. It should concern us all.

7/“Child marriage is a religious problem”

Child marriage is not linked to a single religion. It happens to girls of Hindu, Muslim or Catholic faith, as well as girls from other faiths. In fact, religious leaders play a crucial role in tackling child marriage. They can check that the bride and the groom are both above 18 before a religious wedding, promote progressive interpretation of religious texts, and help people understand that their religion does not condone child marriage.

8/“These girls must be completely helpless”

Girls can play a huge role in ending child marriage if they have access to education and know about their rights. Many girls who once faced child marriage, now advocate for an end to the practice. Girls speaking from experience are well placed to change the minds of their peers and community members.

The causes and drivers of child marriage are as varied as they are complex. And by constantly challenging the myths about child marriage and setting the record straight we are all a step closer to solving a problem that affects 15 million girls each year.

This story was originally published for International Women’s Day in 2017. So many people liked it throughout the year, we thought we’d re-share it over the holidays.